Is there life after Limahl? Yup. The four shy boys take turns to explain how they do it, and what they do it on.
Nobody could have built a better set of victims than Kajagoogoo.
When launched upon the British public, they appeared to be a text book example of a music hack's easy target.
They were pretty, they were playing to 13 year old girls, they had half a TV programme dedicated to them before releasing a note on record, and they were the careful owners of a somewhat daft name.
It was, as they said in Star Trek II "a no-win situation". If their first single did well they were being hyped successfully by EMI, if their first single did badly... they were being hyped unsuccessfully by EMI.
With all the attendant fuss, few people bothered to ask: A can these blokes actually play; B can they write a decent tune or two?
Question B we'll leave to your own ears, suffice to say that "Too Shy" must qualify as one of the most dauntingly infectious number ones of the year.
As for the primary poser, the following interviews should give you some idea that not only can Kajagoogoo play and play very well but they've delved long and hard into the right sounds and equipment for their needs, have influences that exceed your expectations and are prepared to meet the departure of lead singer/frontman Limahl with a determination that speaks more of four years on the road than a few months in the limelight.
With a resigned shrug, Steve Askew glances round the overparked rehearsal room and apologises for his amps being too close together. "Normally I have them further apart, one with a chorused signal and the other dry. That way the effect is not so heavy, it's more like a 12 string."
But today with drums, synths and a mixing desk squeezed into every corner, his two Session 75W combos are locked in a side to side embrace balanced atop a flight case.
One sure sign of an aware and thoughtful guitarist is that no matter how much of this year's musical technology he's asked to indulge in, it's always the subtleties of application that worry him the most. So, even though KajaGooGoo expect Steve to supply heavily echoed chorus to dictate a mood, or sinuous overloaded lines to complement a synth part, he's still concerned that a few feet of missing air means the chorus isn't quite right.
In fact he started out as a bass player when he was about 14, progressing (some would say degenerating!) to the six string four years later. Influences and favourites include Bill Nelson ("brilliant!"), Adrian Belew "and a lot of mellow jazz stuff; that's what turned me on to getting this Epiphone Casino," but more of that later.
For Kajjers the set-up revolves around the two Sessions, a Yamaha E1010 delay line, a rack mounted Vesta Fire chorus/flanger and a Squier '57 Strat, plus a Yamaha SG2000.
"I used to have a Yamaha SF1000 and I liked the single pole sound so I was looking for that in another guitar. I tried this Squier and compared it against Hank Marvin's £3,000 job and there seemed to be hardly any difference!! For the money these Squiers are incredible and this guitar is a '57 replica with the smaller headstock which I much prefer. I've also started using the tremolo arm a lot more, especially with echo."
When it came to trying out the Yamaha SG2000 with the thicker tonality of its humbucking pickups, Steve's first wary thought was "Oh, a bit rockist," — "but after a while I discovered the sound just had more body and bite to it," and the Yamaha found its own niche within the KajaGooGoo songs.
He favours the E1010 echo, mainly because it's fast to set up, reliable and the large controls mean he can mark up on the front panel with all the different settings needed for each track.
"For voice or certain keyboards, probably the Roland 555 Chorus Echo that Stewart uses is better, but for guitar this is quite adequate.
"Sometimes Stewart has to adjust his if the tape's wearing down or running slow or condensation has got into it. The only time this Yamaha has had problems was when we played in Finland and the voltage was different and all the echoes were far too fast.
"The Sessions are usually at ear height at the side of the stage and I've got the monitors in front with the rest of the stuff coming through.
"The second one is a slave and I usually have to make a compromise on the controls because I hate changing them when changing guitars."
The effects board was a naggingly recognisable shape, but it wasn't until Steve outlined its history that a small light bulb blinked on a foot above my barnet.
"A guy called Steve Watson from Session Music in Tooting made it up for me. It's a computer keyboard housing." Yup, see it now, the curved front, the tilted top panel, ideal for taking half a dozen well spaced footswitches. So much for the micro revolution.
It turns on the echo, the Session combos' overload and the chorus, plus an extra distortion unit — an Ibanez Tube Screamer — "nasty little pedal," grins Steve evilly.
And the final accessory has been a constant companion for some years.
Velcroed to the body of his SG2000 — an E-Bow. This small, hand held, chromed device must be one of the best kept secrets in the guitarist business. They contain a battery powered electro magnet which uses its constantly changing magnetic field to "pluck" at the strings. In the same way that a violin bow can be drawn across a violin string making it sustain indefinitely (at least until your arm drops off), an E-Bow can keep a guitar string vibrating for hours.
"They're great, I love them. On 'Too Shy...' it's E-Bow on the middle eight where a lot of people think its synth."
There then follows an ear splitting demonstration which is sure enough the weird wailing screech that inhabits the middle of KajaGooGoo's number one.
The magnet is inside a notch on the lower surface of the E-Bow. Any string placed within that gap vibrates continually and for special effects you bring the magnet closer and closer to one of the pickups until it takes off in shattering electronic feedback.
"That doesn't work on all guitars," warns Steve, "but the sound really pierces even at low volume."
Steve reckons he's "gone through synths and things" and come back to the guitar, promising that the next KajaGooGoo album will have a funkier six string sound, mainly thanks to the introduction of the Squier.
"I had one of those little Korg Guitar synths to start with, the X911. I got all these stupid tin whistle sounds out of it and some bass guitar sounds that didn't have any body." Better not say that too close to Heaven 17. Bass player John Wilson swears by his Korg.
"I also tried using the Roland guitar synth, but wasn't very impressed. People always seem to use the same sound on it, like that harmony setting Robert Fripp uses quite a bit.
"I reckon a guitar should sound like a guitar, I don't see the point, you might as well have a synth doing it."
And it's the rebellion against mega technology that led him first to an Aria Elecord acoustic for studio work — "the same one Cliff Richard uses, must be good!" — and eventually to the Epiphone Casino semi-acoustic mentioned earlier.
"It's about 35 years old, the only thing is it's not quite rich enough for the sound I'm looking for. I think I need a really deep bodied guitar to get what I'm after." But for the time being, he'd like just a few more feet tacked between his amps. Like the man said... space, the final frontier...
It comes to something when the keyboard player of one of the country's more successful bands describes his Roland Jupiter 8, Wave 2.2 poly and Yamaha CP80 piano as "a basic set-up".
Still, he could have a point. There was a period when we all thought a Prophet 5 could produce every sound in the world and it was safe to stroll along to gigs with a single keyboard.
But the advances in digital technology have introduced a fresh spectrum of tones. We're slipping back to the days when, in order to capture everything around, you need three, four or even more synths, each with an individual character. You also need enough five pound notes to cover Wembley.
"The Jupiter is a great instrument," affirms Stuart Neale, confessing that it's been thoroughly bashed into service. "All the settings are my own and I'm limited by the 64 memories — in a set I use practically all of them. Out front you might think it doesn't sound much different, but they are being used."
The Roland has become the workhorse for string and bass synth sounds plus soft, organy tones such as the swirling first chords on "Too Shy..." Lately he's begun to play around with splitting the oscillator banks and tuning them apart to fifths or fourths. Expect more of that on the next album.
The Wave is one of the handful of products from the German PPG company and was one of the earliest commercially available synths to mix digital waveform creation with analogue controls and place them in a portable, single keyboard unit. Depeche Mode were converted to it and Stuart only recently acquired his, so is still investigating the possibilities.
"It needs plenty of time to understand fully, but there are some good things like the stereo panning. You can split the keyboard where you like and in each setting there are two groups. You can have totally different sounds and draw them together."
The Jupiter and the Wave are perfect complimentary machines because they have similar facilities such as the split keyboard and overlayed voices so the mind doesn't have to perform mental leaps each time the fingers swap around. But soundwise they're light years apart.
"In the studio the Wave gives a very clean digital sound. The poly sequencer built into it is fairly tricky work, it's very complicated but the scope is limitless if you can spend the time. One way I use the sequencer is to tune one setting on the Wave to different notes so you can play a sequence by hitting only one key with the right timing."
The Yamaha piano harks back to Stuart's early keyboard training — he went to the Royal College of Music when he was 12 and stayed for three and a half years!
"I suppose I'm more of a player than a technician. I had to pick synths up as I went along."
I wondered if those years of pounding the piano made for problems when swapping to lighter synth keyboards?
"No, because in some respect they have a very flowing action and the piano can be more difficult because expression is the thing... it takes a lot more from you.
"I'm not naturally 'electronic', but I'm getting into it now. I use the piano quite a bit for different textures, especially solo pieces. It blends well with what Steve and Nick are doing."
Mostly it goes straight into the desk via Stuart's own eight channel mixer which he occasionally fiddles with on stage. "It's strange when you're playing and you hear things, sometimes you hear them so differently. It hasn't changed, but you're getting into a mental panic."
That's when a reassuring tweak on the mixer helps settle the mind.
Stuart leaves the addition of effects to the sound man and his AMS, though from time to time he might flick on the chorus on the Roland 555 delay. Thankfully the CP80 is a sturdy beast — "on the road we have it tuned every day, and every tuner has really got on with it" — though he keeps promising himself that one day he'll get round to having the action lightened.
"I don't really have time to play much at home. To play anything classical I'd have to get a score and learn it, I can only remember a couple of classical pieces that I had to do to get grades. I like playing rags and stuff. When I do practice I might play the guitar and a keyboard if there is one. It's difficult at the moment because the equipment is set up for rehearsal and there's lots of promotion work, but I'm going to get a piano at home for writing purposes as much as anything else."
Another expansion to the "basic set-up" is, yes, you guessed it, a computer. Since he already has the Wave 2.2 keyboard, Stuart is planning to investigate the PPG Wave Term — "If it has any of the facilities of the Fairlight I'm gonna get that. We're definitely going to use a Fairlight or something on the next album for some acoustically sampled sounds." All this technology from a man who once tuned pianos for Kemble/Yamaha.
"I don't specifically listen to keyboard players; those I do like are Chick Corea, Patrick Moraz, Keith Jarrett as a pianist, also Oscar Peterson. In the same category as us, then I like the bands more than the individuals. I play the guitar and bass as well. The first band I was in was as a lead guitarist, then as a bassist. It's good to listen to everything, I think you have to, all the members of this band listen to everything.
"For sounds I like... oh... Gabriel, I like a lot, really. I've just been listening to the new Talking Heads album. 'Speaking In Tongues'. They use their keyboards in a very original way... and Thomas Dolby, that album of his was far ahead of its time."
It was the final question in the interview and it brought the sharpest, surest response of the evening. I'd dared to ask Nick Beggs if he might have to simplify his bass lines, now he'd accepted the crown of vocalist from departed Kajjer, Limahl.
"No. I wouldn't allow myself to, because it forces you to improve as a musician. Like, everybody has GOT to improve and if you don't..."
The sentence stays unfinished but the sentiment is plain. For a band that's gained an instantaneous reputation for lightweight pop and pretty-look commerciality, Nick and the rest of Kajagoogoo take their playing very seriously.
Anyhow, it's worth remembering that Kajagoogoo were bowling along as a four piece before the advent of Limahl.
Anyone who expected them to curl up and cry without the two-tone haircut at the front of the stage would have a very tenuous grasp of what Kajagoogoo were all about. The musicianship behind the band runs deep and relishes in plenty of rehearsal, effort and attention to detail.
Nick's own bass playing background is... ah... surprising. "I started with a plectrum on a Rickenbacker copy and my first hero was Chris Squire of Yes. I really was into that 'hey, man' stuff but I got bored with it." The plectrum went out the window when he first realised it was impossible to get strong, convincing harmonics and anyway, there was an entire world of slap playing waiting around the edge of the thumb.
"The transition was very difficult. The thing that did it was listening to some Morrissey Mullen stuff and trying to learn their slap bass lines. I damaged my thumb to start off with. I still damage my fingers now because I haven't been playing for a while. We've been doing promotion and studio work. I've got a big blister coming up."
Needless to say the Rickenbacker copy doesn't feature too highly these days. The current favourite is a Musicman Stingray with a Wal Pro coming close behind for softer fingered lines. "I did have an Aria first of all, an Aria SB900 and it was pretty good, but I needed something with a more active pickup.
"I bought the Wal because a lot of my favourite players used them, but I've stopped using it so much because you can't really show off..."
The sort of exhibitionism Nick refers to is the hard tugging and slapping of strings that the dirtiest of bass players prefer. Apparently the saddle spacing on the Wal makes it tricky to slip your fingers between the strings and heave firmly on them for a resounding crack. At least Nick's fingers don't fit easily. He usually ends up pushing the string down onto the pickup by mistake.
I mention the word "Steinberger"... even worse. "You can't slap on them at all. It's a good sound, but they're overrated and overpriced."
At the moment he's trying to get hold of a Musicman Cutlass which is formed around a silicon neck. "It's solider and seems easier to play. The guy from Culture Club let me play his the other day. They're great."
Nick drops the Musicman into his lap and continues, "I've been experimenting recently with playing two separate rhythms on the same instrument."
There then follows a startling cross-beat display which has him pounding a one note rhythm on the E string with thumb and fingers of the right hand while filling in a counter line full of G string hammer-ons and pull offs with the left hand. Individually the techniques aren't difficult, but drawing them together into a coherent pattern is something else.
In fact had practice been less of a problem 10 years ago, he wouldn't have been the bass player he is now. He would have been a drummer. "I started playing drums when I was 10 and then I moved to a smaller house and couldn't take the drums with me so I sold them. For a long while I was instrumentless then I picked up an acoustic guitar and started playing the first four strings and that I liked so I bought myself a Jedson bass short scale, and was playing heavy metal stuff."
As basses improved Nick had to look around for a higher quality amp set up, eventually deciding that he wanted a Trace Elliot rig. "A lot of the bass players I admire use them, like the guy from Bow Wow Wow and Mark King."
He finally settled on the 500W head with graphic going into an 8 x 10 cab. "I think this outfit cost about a grand. I had it flight cased up. It's great, we used it on the whole of the British tour and didn't have any problems, and on the European tour." The settings on the graphic change "according to my mood" and the cabinets have changed according to his style. He first planned on using larger speakers thinking he'd need more bass end but as his playing picked up more percussive traits the 8 x 10s turned out to be the perfect punchy choice.
One aspect the break with Limahl hasn't altered is the way the band write their material. "Songs start off with a riff or something like that. 'Too Shy' was written around a bass guitar lick." Which he then promptly demonstrates.
If you've got a copy of the single, take it out, plonk it on the turntable and just listen to the bass line. It leaps in incredible directions, appears to skid from one section to another and includes a couple of harmonies that can only be described as unpredictable. As a slice of bass guitar writing it's admirable — as the pinning line to such a hummable song it's unbelievable.
"I don't really like pop music at all and never listen to it. I think it's very shallow when you consider other forms of music and I prefer to listen to stuff like jazz, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, people like that.
"I think Level 42 are one of the best bands around for that sort of thing, they are brilliant. I just like good musicianship. When you go to see a band you can tell straight away whether they can play or not. It's very hard to bullshit a musician."
In case you were wondering (and I know you were), Jez Strode isn't in the habit of watching TV while he plays drums. That screen at his side isn't for catching the latest unmissable edition of "Brookside", but is sketching out the Simmons drum patches for the next song. Anyway, the Movement drum computer can't get Channel 4.
Damn, there we go, given it all away again. The Movement is one of those musicomputer advances that happens at the "personal" end of chip technology. It's been built not by a silicon magnate like Sony but by a small company.
The advantage is that you the purchaser can speak to him the designer and request your own sampled sounds or devise programmes to match specific band needs. The Movement combines "real" drum sounds encoded on cards (which Jez triggers from hexagonal Simmons pads) and a rhythm machine that displays or requests information on the built-in VDU above the typewriter keyboard.
The disadvantage is that without the funds and facilities to allow extensive testing and research, the products of a small firm can often be... er, wayward.
"It's not been fully tested yet," says Jez, "we've had it about six months and had problems with the power going down. We've learnt from that and we'll take a unit to keep it stable." The sulky volts of Finland were to blame for the most serious misbehaviour when the Movement went amnesiac and dumped its memory, but everyone in the band had gear trouble that night, so we shouldn't be too hard.
Jez' bright orange (hmmm) Movement stores 14 sounds, some of them put in on the production line, others recorded by himself. He'll be going into the studio soon to prepare tapes for three immaculate toms, another bass drum and another snare so they can be fed into the sampling memory.
Before the Movement there was the Simmons which boasts a vast array of pads. Jez began by playing the Simmons on its own, linked to the appropriate modules mounted on a rack system behind him and to his left.
Now most of the pads are tied into the Movement's memory cards, but the top four toms are still linked via splitter leads to the Simmons modules so they trigger both systems at once.
The Thompson Twins also have a Movement but it's used more as a rhythm machine. KajaGooGoo's method of application is quite different, mainly because the programme was devised to Jez' specifications. In each song he needs different sounds on different pads — not so much for the bass, snare and toms, they stay pretty much the same, but more for special effect noises and percussive work. The Movement has 35 memory positions — on keys 1 to 9 and A-Z — each of which is a separate "kit", so at the press of one button Jez can entirely alter his drum set up.
"I'd like to expand it so I could play and bring in another snare, maybe. There are some songs where you might like a big snare sound." Or, he adds not 100 per cent seriously, you could want bass drum on every pad. "It's a shame that the 14 sounds I have in there are really not enough."
Programming fresh "kits" is done by first unlocking the memory, then alongside the number for the pad, the screen will display the previously selected kit.
History time. "I taught myself. Really I wish I'd started when I was ten, but I only began when I was 18, I didn't rehearse much... parents... couldn't get the drums in the house.
"We played for four years in clubs doing 'Yellow River' and all the old standards... Agnes and Bert with their pint of beer. We just kept plugging away. We refused to play waltzes. If someone asked for a waltz we just played a slow one. It was like doing an apprenticeship, you thought, 'I'm doing this to earn money to buy gear to do our own music'."
He confesses to "not being a technical drummer", but anyway prefers simple, straight soul playing citing Steve Farron of the Average White Band as a hero and... with an audible sigh of jealousy... Bill Bruford for the ideal matching of technique and style.
"The first kit I had was an old Beverley bought for £65 — no cymbals, no hi hat... there was hardly anything there! I used an ordinary three legged stool turned upside down with a piece of elastic round it and laid the snare inside that."
He's come a few feet further since then, in cymbals if nothing else. After a couple of years using Zildjians, Jez has now swapped to Paiste 2002s — a 15 in crash, an 18 in medium and an 18 in crash plus a set of Sound Edge hi-hats. "Zildjian were very good for, I dunno, rock 'n' roll, futurist stuff with Art Nouveau, but these are so much more brilliant."
It was the brightness and sheer volume of the Sound Edges that helped make the decision to go over to Simmons. Jez likes to set the hi-hats close into the snare but it was a combination fraught with grief when they came to record in the studio. The hi-hat was forever spilling into the snare microphone, ruining the balance. Hands up all drummers similarly cursed. Just the 45,000 of you, I see.
The Simmons pads have stood up well to constant battering — "They're made from French riot shield plastic, so if we have a bit of trouble after the gig, we pick them up and run" — and Jez has no complaints about "Simmons wrist" a soreness affecting certain drummers who prefer a real, yielding drum skin to a brittle plastic surface.
On tour, KajaGooGoo use an eight track tape deck to fill in certain synth and percussion lines. Two of the tracks carry a sync code to run the lighting show.
"You get used to playing to a click track, but I don't know whether it eventually damages your hearing. It's very loud and gets turned up as the gig goes on.
"Most of the music we play has a pulse bass drum and you find a comfortable situation: when you're not conscious of the click, then you're in, but if you're slightly out, you start noticing it.
"It's a devil to start off with really. Initially we did it without a click but we had a very complicated synth line and I was also struggling to listen to the monitors... it was terrible... those are days long gone by."
Source audio recordings by Mike Gorman.
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